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Fantasies of the Art-House Audience

by Pauline Kael

             For several decades now educated people have been condescending toward the children, the shopgirls, all those with “humdrum” or “impoverished” lives - the mass audience - who turned to movies for “ready-made” dreams. The educated might admit that they sometimes went to the movies designed for the infantile mass audience - the number of famous people who relax with detective fiction makes this admission easy - but presumably they were not “taken in”; they went to get away from the tensions of their complex lives and work. But of course when they really want to enjoy movies as an art, they go to foreign films or “adult” or unusual or experimental American films.

I would like to suggest that the educated audience often uses “art” films in much the same self-indulgent way as the mass audience uses the Hollywood “product,” finding wish fulfillment in the form of cheap and easy congratulation on their sensitivities and their liberalism. (Obviously any of my generalizations are subject to numerous exceptions and infinite qualifications; let’s assume that I know this, and that I use large generalizations in order to be suggestive rather than definite.)

By the time Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour reached American art houses, expectations were extraordinarily high. Dwight Macdonald in Esquire had said: “It is the most original, moving exciting and important movie I’ve seen in years, somehow managing to combine a love story with propaganda against war and the atomic bomb without either losing its full force.” The rest of the press seemed to concur. The Saturday Review considered it “a masterpiece.” The New York Herald Tribune decided that “it establishes beyond any man’s cavilling the potentialities of the film as an art” - something one might have thought already established. Time decided that the theme was that “Hiroshima, like God, is love. It is the Calvary of the atomic age. It died for man’s sins . . .” I met a couple who had seen the film five nights in a row; a University of California professor informed me that if I didn’t like this one, he would never speak to me again. Dwight Macdonald wrote more and went further:

It is a stylised as Potemkin or Ten Days that Shook the World, as pure and powerful as
cinema . . . It is also a novelistic exploration of memory, a recherche du temps perdu comparable to Proust . . . For the first time since Eisenstein - we have a cinematic intelligence so quick, so subtle, so original, so at once passionate and sophisticated that it can be compared with Joyce, with Picasso, with Berg and Bartok and Stravinsky. The audience was extraordinarily quiet - no coughing, whispering, rustling of paper; a hypnotic trance. . . It was oddly like a religious service, and if someone had made a wisecrack, it would have seemed not an irritation but a blasphemy.

Surely movies - even the greatest movies - are rarely received in such an atmosphere of incense burning. Breathless and L’Avventura were to be either admired or disliked or ignored, but Hiroshima Mon Amour was described in hushed tones; it was some sort of ineffable deep experience. Why?

The picture opened with those intertwined nude bodies - this could be symbolic of a true intermingling, but it irresistibly set off some lewd speculation about just what was going on. And what was that stuff they were covered with? Beach sand? Gold dust? Ashes? Finally, I accepted it as symbolic bomb ash, but I wasn’t happy with it. (Later I discovered that it was supposed to be “sweat, ashes and dew.”) Then the French girl said she had seen everything in Hiroshima, and the Japanese man told her she had seen nothing in Hiroshima. Then they said the same things over again, and again, and perhaps again. And I lost patience. I have never understood why writers assume that repetition creates a lyric mood or underlines meaning with profundity. My reaction is simply, “OK, I got it the first time, let’s get on with it.” Now, this is obviously not how we are supposed to react to Marguerite Duras’s dialogue, which is clearly intended to be musical and contrapuntal, and I was going to try to get in the right, passive, receptive mood for a ritual experience, when some outright fraud made me sit up and pay attention. The action - or inaction - in bed was intercut with what purported to be documentary shots of the effect of the bomb on Hiroshima. Only I had seen some of the footage before in a Japanese atrocity movie that was about as documentary as Peyton Place. This clumsily staged imposture made me suspect that the Japanese man didn’t know Hiroshima either, and I began to look askance at the truth he was supposed to represent. Where did he get this metaphysical identity with Hiroshima? As the film went on, and the heroine recounted her first love for a German soldier, how he had been killed on the last day of fighting, how she had been dragged away and her head shaved, how she had gone mad and been hidden away in the cellar by her shamed parents, I began to think less and less of the movie and more about why so many people were bowled over by it.

Was it possibly an elaborate, masochistic fantasy for intellectuals? Surely both sexes could identify with the girl’s sexual desperation, her sensitivity and confusion - and had anyone dreamed up worse punishments for sexuality? Only a few years ago it had looked as if James Dean in East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause had gone just about as far as anybody could in being misunderstood. But this heroine not only had her head shaved by people who didn’t understand her love and need of the German, but she went crazy and was locked in a cellar. You can’t got much further in being misunderstood. And, at the risk of giving offense, is this not what sends so many people to analysts - the fear that they’ll go crazy if they don’t get love?

The Japanese, it may be noted, is rather dull and uninteresting: he says no more than an analyst might; he is simply a sounding board. And if, being Japanese, he is supposed to represent the world’s conscience, he brings an unsuitably bland, professionally sympathetic and upper-class manner to the function. But everybody who has suffered sexual deprivation - and who hasn’t? - can identify with her and perhaps fantasize brutal parents and cellars. Even her insanity can be equated with those rough nights when a love affair fell apart or that nervous exhaustion at the end of the academic year that sends so many to the hospital or the psychiatric clinic.

It seemed to be a woman’s picture - in the most derogatory sense of the term. And still she went on talking: her feelings, her doubts, her memories, kept pouring out. It began to seem like True Confession at the higher levels of spiritual and sexual communion; and I decided the great lesson for us all was to shut up. This woman (beautifully as Emmanuelle Riva interpreted her) was exposing one of the worst faults of intelligent modern women: she was talking all her emotions out - as if bed were the place to demonstrate sensibility. It’s unfortunate that what people believe to be the most important things about themselves, their innermost truths and secrets - the real you or me - that we dish up when somebody looks sympathetic, is very likely to be the driveling nonsense that we generally have enough brains to forget about. The real you or me that we conceal because we think people won’t accept it is slop - and why should anybody want it?

But here was the audience soaking it up - audiences of social workers, scientist, doctors, architects, professors - living and loving and suffering just like the stenographer watching Susan Hayward. Are the experiences involved really so different? Few of us have seen our lovers killed by partisan bullets, but something kills love anyway - something always does - and it’s probably highly gratifying for many people to identify with a heroine who isn’t responsible; it is the insane world that has punished her for her sexual expression. Emmanuelle Riva’s sexual expression is far more forthright than a Hollywood heroine’s, which makes it more appealing to an educated audience, and, of course, her character and her manner of indicating her emotional problems have a higher “tone.” (It may be relevant to note that the educated audience, which generally ignores Miss Hayward, did turn out for I Want to Live, in which the character of Barbara Graham was turned into a sort of modern Tess of the d’Urbervilles - not only innocent of crime but horribly sinned against and nobler than anybody else.)

But what does her sad story have to do with Hiroshima and the bomb? Would not some other psychosexual story of deprivation (say, Camille or Stella Dallas) be just as relevant to the horrors of war if it were set in Hiroshima? It would seem so. However, the setting itself explains another aspect of the film’s strong appeal, particularly to liberal intellectuals. There is a crucial bit of dialogue: “They makes movies to sell soap, why not a movie to sell peace?” I don’t know how many movies you have gone to lately that were made to sell soap, but American movies are like advertisements, and we can certainly assume that indirectly they sell a way of life that includes soap as well as an infinity of other products. But what makes the dialogue crucial is that the audience for Hiroshima Mon Amour feels virtuous because they want to buy peace. And the question I want to ask is: who’s selling it?

Recently, at a cocktail party of artists and professors, I noticed displayed on a table right next to the pickled Jerusalem artichokes, two French publications - Lo Duca’s new volume on Eroticism in the Cinema and Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon. Both books are like more elegantly laid-out issues of Confidential and all those semi-nameless magazines which feature hideously outsized mammary glands, only these books are supposed to be chic - the latest intellectual camp. The Lo Duca book features stills from a Kenneth Anger movie in which nude ladies are wrapped in chains. Anger, you may recall, made his reputation with a film called Fireworks, in which a roman candle explodes inside a sailor’s fly. His own book has a dust jacket photograph of Jayne Mansfield - an aerial view down her dress that makes her breasts look like long strips of cooked tripe. The book itself is a recounting of the legends (that is to say the dirty stories, scandals, and gossip) that Anger heard while growing up in southern California.

What struck me about these books, which function as entertainment to what might be called highbrows, was that their chic seemed to consist largely in a degradation of the female image. The stars and starlets are displayed at their most grotesque, just as they are in the cheapest American publications (in fact the photos are probably derived from those sources). This female image is a parody of woman - lascivious face, wet open mouth, gigantic drooping breasts. She has no character, no individuality: she’s blonde or brunette or redhead, as one might consume a martini, an old-fashioned, or a gin and tonic.

Now I am told that even the junior-high-school boys of America use photographs like these as pinups, and that this is their idea of the desirable female. I don’t believe it. I would guess that they pretend to this ideal because they’re afraid they won’t be considered manly and sexy if they admit they find this image disgusting. I don’t believe that these photographs are erotic in any ordinary sense. I think that the grotesqueness of this female image is what people enjoy. Here are some possible reasons. First, these spongy, subhuman sex images reduce women to the lowest animal level. And in the modern world, where women are competent, independent, and free and equal, the men have a solid, competitive hostility - they want to see women degraded even lower than they were in the Victorian era. Here is woman reduced to nothing but a blob that will gratify any male impulse. And, of course, a woman who has no interest in life but love presents no challenge to the male ego. Second, there’s the old split between sacred and profane love - and many men feel that the more degraded the female, the more potent they would become. Third, there’s the vast homosexual audience which enjoys derision of the female. I would guess, and here’s a big generalization, that more homosexuals than heterosexuals love to chortle over the nude photos of Anita Ekberg. She’s so preposterous - a living satire of the female. It’s my guess that the audience for nudie-cutie magazines uses them in much the same way the wealthy and educated use expensive French publications on the same theme: they want to laugh at the subjects and/or feel superior to them.

When the parodied female becomes known, becomes a “personality,” derision gives way to admiration and sympathy and “understanding.” In publications like the British Sunday Times you will find discussions with passages like “Marilyn Monroe grew up without affection and at times she was near suicide. When she talks about herself the awareness of her bitter past is never quite absent.” Time and Life present her psychoanalytical comments on herself. And Dwight Macdonald in Esquire explains that “the expensive difficulties she makes for her employers are not so much prima donna assertiveness as symptoms of resentment and boredom.” Sociologists read Zolotow’s book on her character changes, and Cecil Beaton rhapsodizes that “she was born the postwar day we had need of her. Certainly she had no knowledge of the past. Giraudox’s Ondine, she is only fifteen years old; and she will never die.” He’s right, at least, about her not having knowledge of the past: she seems to have swallowed all the psychoanalytical cliches about maltreated children, and when she talks about her past she simply spews them up. And the educated public loves these burbling bits of Freudian “insight” when they come out of the mouths of “babes.” In The Misfits, our heroine, with the sure instincts of the faithful dog, and the uncorrupted clarity of the good clean peasant, looks at each character in the film and knows him for what he is. The innocent eye can see the inner man - she’s the female of the species of the strong, silent hero, but she’s also the traditional whore with the heart of gold. Her performance in The Misfits appears uncontrollably nervous, but it’s almost as if her confused state were the final proof of her sincerity. The public loves her the more because life seems too much for her.

La Verite is a tired and trite and mechanical piece of slick moviemaking. Conceptually, it’s rather like Of Human Bondage - seen from Mildred’s point of view. Although the title and the film’s structure suggest that we are going to see the relativity of truth, the movie seems designed to show us the truth about Brigitte Bardot, just as The Misfits was written around Monroe. (These ladies are then congratulated for their histrionic achievements in playing themselves; certainly they are perfect in the roles - no one else could play them so well - but then, could they play anyone else?) This confusion of art and life which takes the form of sensationalism is becoming very popular in this Freudianized period. (Clouzot coyly plays with this confusion by having Bardot, the subject of a book by Simone de Beauvoir, accused in the courtroom of La Verite of having read a book by de Beauvoir.)

It is supposed to be daring and modern to make these messed-up accounts of messed-up lives - though they may seem very much like the old Sunday supplements with their daring exposes. In this new form, however, the appeal is not only to the mass audience but also the more literate, who are led to believe that they are getting some inside psychological dope.

Apparently these screen incarnations of male fantasies, Monroe (once a calendar girl come to comic strip life, an implausible but delicious affront to respectability) and Bardot (the distillation of all those irresponsible, petulant teen-agers who may never know that human experience has depth and expressiveness and potentialities beyond their immediate range of impulses) are objects of enthusiasm not so much for their (former or present) polymorphous-perverse physical charms and their (former or present) comedy talents, as for their messy, miscarriages, overweight problems, husband troubles, and all those mental and physical ills which now comprise the image of a great star. The new heroine of our films is becoming the wretched star herself. In the pre-Freudian age, the exploitation of persona ailments in films like The Misfits and La Verite would have been regarded as disgusting. It is disgusting, and the condescending type of sympathetic “understanding” which is now widely purveyed is an insult to Freud and man. In the frivolous, absurd old days, starts were photographed in their bubble baths: now they bathe in tears of self-pity - while intellectual critics tap their understanding typewriters.

The “mass” audience looks up at the “stars”; the educated audience looks down sympathetically, as if reading a case history. They all stew in their own narcissism. The mass audience is beginning to catch up. On a recent television program Ed Sullivan clucked sympathetically at Brigitte Bardot and told her how much he sympathized with the hard life of glamour girls like her and Monroe and Taylor, and, final irony, told her how much he admired the way she had “handled herself.”

The educated American is a social worker at heart: he feels especially sympathetic toward these slovenly ladies because their slovenliness marks them as misfits who couldn’t function in his orderly world. The same man who is enchanted with Monroe in the seduction scene of Some Like It Hot - crawling all over Tony Curtis while hanging out of her dress both fore and aft - expects his girl friend or wife to be trim, slender and well-groomed. The decor in the homes and offices of the American professional classes is clean and functional - Scandinavian with a guilty dash of Japanese (as reparation for the bomb, we sit close to the earth). Upon occasion, the American will desert the art house for an American picture, particularly if it is advertised with the intellectually fashionable decor. For this decor is an article of faith: it is progressive and important; it calls businessmen and artists to conferences at Aspen, where it is linked with discussions of such topics as “Man the Problem Solver.” And so American movies now often come, packaged as it were, with several minutes of ingenious, abstract, eye-catching titles. This send-off - the graphics look provided by Saul Bass and other designers - has virtually nothing to do with style or mood of the picture, but it makes the movie look more modern. (How can the picture be dismissed as trash when it looks like your own expensive living room?) This type of design, using basic colors and almost no soft lines, was, of course, devised so that advertising would be clear and effective with a minimum of cost. In movies, a photographic medium, complexity and variety and shadings of beauty are no more expensive than simplification. But modern graphic design, which has built an aesthetic on advertising economics, has triumphed: new big productions (like The Misfits) open with such a proud array of flashy designs that the movie itself comes on rather apologetically.

The advertising campaign for new films often uses a motif that appears again at the opening of the film: presumably, if the ad was good enough to get you there, you’ll appreciate having it amplified. Perhaps the next Hollywood “genius” will be the man who can design the whole movie to look like a high-powered ad. At present, the movie that begins when the packaging is out of the way is in a different, and older, style of advertising art. This style was summed up by a member of the audience a few weeks ago when I was looking at a frightfully expensive, elaborately staged movie. The beautiful heroine, in pale blue, was descending an elegant beige stair case, when a voice from the dark piped up - “Modess, because . . .” When the beautiful heroine in pale blue finally got into her creamy white lace and the properly nondenominational clergyman intoned, “Wilt thou, Robert, take this woman . . . ,” another voice in the theater groaned, “I wilt.”

The social worker-at-heart finds true reassurance when the modern-designed movie also has modern design built into the theme: a movie like Twelve Angry Men. Ask an educated American what he thought of Twelve Angry Men and more likely than not he will reply, “That movie made some good points” or “It got some important ideas across.” His assumption is that it carried those ideas, which also happen to be his ideas, to the masses. Actually, it didn’t: this tense, ingenious juryroom melodrama was a flop with the mass audience, a success only at revivals in art houses.

The social psychology of Twelve Angry Men is perfectly attuned to the educated audience. The hero, Henry Fonda - the one against the eleven - is lean, intelligent, gentle but strong; this liberal, fair-minded architect is their hero. And the boy on trial is their dream of a victim: he is of some unspecified minority, he is a slum product who never had a chance, and, to clinch the case, his father didn’t love him. It isn’t often that professional people can see themselves on the screen as the hero - in this case the Lincolnesque architect of the future - and how they love it! They are so delighted to see a movie that demonstrates a proposition they have already accepted that they cite Twelve Angry Men and The Defiant Ones as evidence that American movies are really growing up.

It is a depressing fact that Americans tend to confuse morality and art (to the detriment of both), and that, among the educated, morality tends to mean social consciousness. Not implicit social awareness (Antonioni isn’t “saying anything,” they complain of L’Avventura) but explicit, machine-tooled, commercialized social consciousness. “The old payola won’t work any more,” announces the hero of The Apartment, and even people who should know better are happy to receive the message. How reassuring The Apartment is, with its cute, soft-hearted Jewish doctor and his cute, soft-hearted, fat, mama-comic Jewish wife - so unworldly and lovable that they take the poor frustrated sap for a satyr (almost as deadly in its “humor” as Rock Hudson being mistaken for a homosexual in Pillow Talk). In The Apartment, the little people are little dolls; the guys at the top are vicious and corrupt and unfaithful to their wives as well. The moral is, stick at the bottom and you don’t have to do the dirty. This is the pre-bomb universe; and its concept of the “dirty” is so old-fashioned and irrelevant, its notions of virtue and of vice so smugly limited, that it’s positively cozy to see people for whom deciding to quit a plushy job is a big moral decision. The “social consciousness”’ of the educated is so unwieldy, so overstuffed, that the mass audience may well catch up before the intellectuals have found any grounds to move on to - though surely many should be happy to vacate the premises of Freud and Marx.

The art-house audience is at its dreamiest for Russian films like Ballad of a Soldier and The Cranes Are Flying. How eager they are to believe the best about the Soviet Union, to believe that love is back, propaganda is out, and it’s all right to like Russian movies because the Russians are really nice people, very much like us, only better. These sentiments have been encouraged by the theaters and by the cultural exchange agreement, and at showings of The Cranes Are Flying there was a queasy little prefatory note: “At the same time you are watching this Soviet film, Soviet audiences are watching an American motion picture.” I was happy for the voice in the theater which piped up, “But it’s six A.M. in the Soviet Union.”

The Cranes Are Flying and Ballad of a Soldier are both good examples of nineteenth-century patriotism and nineteenth-century family values; neither seems to belong to the Communist period at all - they’re reminiscent of American war epics of the silent era. And sophisticated Americans love the simple, dutiful characters that they would laugh at in American movies. It’s a long time since audiences at art houses accepted the poor, ravished unhappy heroine who has to marry the cad who rapes her. They go even farther toward primitivism at Ballad of a Soldier: they love the “touching” and “charming” hero and heroine who express such priggish repugnance at a soldier’s unfaithful wife (how would these two react if they caught the wife sleeping with a German, like the heroine of Hiroshima Mon Amour?). Ballad of a Soldier takes us back to the days when love was sweet and innocent, authority was good, only people with principles thought about sex, and it was the highest honor to fight and die for your country. These homely values, set in handsome, well-photographed landscapes, apparently are novel and refreshing - perhaps they’re even exotic - to the art-house audiences. It’s a world that never was, but hopeful people would love to associate it with life in the Soviet Union.

Are these recruiting posters so morally superior to American lingerie ads like Butterfield 8? Are they as effective in the U.S.S.R. as in the outside world? We can see the results of Butterfield 8: half the junior-high-school girls in America are made up to look like Elizabeth Taylor, and at the Academy Award Show it was hard to tell the stars apart - there were so many little tin Lizzies. It’s more difficult to gauge the effects of Russia’s antique middle-class morality. Perhaps educated Americans love the Russians more than the Russians do. All over America people are suddenly studying Russian; and they sometimes give the impression that the first word they want to learn is “Welcome.”

A congressional subcommittee headed by Kathryn Granahan, a Democrat from Pennsylvania who is known as America’s leading lady smut-hunter, is exploring the possibility that the influx of foreign films, most especially French films Les Liaisons Dangereuses, may be a Communist plot to undermine American moral structure - that is to say that Americans are being offered a preoccupation with sex so that they will become degenerate, corrupt, too weak to combat the Communist threat. Mrs. Granahan has stated that the social, cultural and moral standards of France are among the greatest impediments to a strong NATO stand against international Communism.

In other words, she takes the position that a strong state, a state capable of defending itself, must be a Puritan state, and that individual freedom and the loosening of sexual standards threaten the state. This is, of course, the present Communist position: even American jazz is regarded as a threat. Nothing could be cleaner - in nineteenth-century terms - than Russian movies. Observers at the Moscow Film Festival reported that the Russians were quite upset after the showing of The Trials of Oscar Wilde: they had been under the impression that Wilde was imprisoned for his revolutionary politics - for socialism, not for sodomy. Russians have been protected from just such information, discussion and arts as Mrs. Granahan would protect us from. Apart from what appears to be a wholly unfounded notion that the Russians are trying to poison us via French sexual standards, there is an interesting issue here. For absurd as the Granahan position seems to be, I have heard a variant of it from many people who would scoff at the way she puts it.

Everywhere in the United States enthusiasts for La Dolce Vita explain that it’s a great lesson to us - that Rome fell because of sexual promiscuity and high living, and we will too - that the Communists are going to win because of our moral laxity, our decay. It’s as if poor old Gibbon had labored in vain, and the churches’ attitudes have triumphed. Even those who no longer believe in God seem to accept the idea that European and American habits and values are loose and sinful and will bring destruction down upon us.

May I suggest that this is just nonsensical as the Granahan line? If all Europeans and all Americans suddenly became heterosexual and monogamous - if everyone took the pledge and there were no more drinking, if all nightclubs were closed, and if the rich turned their wealth over to the poor - I cannot see that our power position in this nuclear age would in any way be affected. And it’s astonishing that the sensible people can get so sentimental about Russian movies with their Puritan standards, the bourgeois morality that developed out of the rising salaried classes and the Stalinist drive to stamp out individual freedom. Queen Victoria squats on the Kremlin; and Americans who fought to rid themselves of all that repressive Victorianism now beat their breasts and cry, look how good they are, look how terrible we are - why, we don’t deserve to win. Has Puritanism won by the pure in heart?

Kael, Pauline. “I Lost It At The Movies”. Little, Brown and Company, first edition, 1965. (31-44)



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